Businesses — particularly startups — need to be relentlessly focused on goals. But many entrepreneurs learn the hard way that when it comes to their companies, not all approaches to setting and reaching goals are created equal. The fact is that while “goal setting” may sound like a straightforward thing to do if you don’t take a strategic approach to determining the best goals for your business, you may make the mistake of applying your time and energy in the wrong direction. As Stephen R. Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”

One example of a misguided approach to goal setting is to focus on external motivators. I learned this lesson the hard way before I launched my own business as an executive coach. I vividly remember my days as a young sales manager, offering technology solutions to money-center banks. The company’s sales goals were a make-or-break affair on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis. The tyranny of being ruled by these numbers with no intrinsic sources of motivation caused me to leave this career, regardless of the financial rewards that came when I did hit the numbers.

Years later, as a small business owner, I’ve come to realize that it wasn’t the fault of the goals that drove me out of sales. No matter what industry you’re in, you’ll always have financial goals that you need to reach. But when you incorporate goals that are intrinsically motivating alongside these needed external goals, it can fuel your attempts to reach the next steps and weather setbacks.

Internal goals are as much about you as they are about your business. So, in order to set and manage the optimum goals that can facilitate your success, it’s important to understand yourself well enough to know what motivates you. It’s also vital to put the right structure around your goals to maximize your chances of reaching them rather than getting derailed by distractions. Here are four ways to set smarter goals that can ultimately accelerate business growth:

1. Use past experiences to prioritize

As an entrepreneur, you come to the table with a perspective that you’ve developed from what you did previously. Whether you once worked for a traditional employer as I did or have other experiences behind why you decided to launch your own enterprise, your history contains valuable clues into which experiences it makes sense to replicate and which you shouldn’t.

Take Rich, for example. Having spent the first part of his career driving business development initiatives for a medical device company, he knew that he wanted an opportunity to focus on strategy at a higher level. During his tenure with his employer, his intellectual curiosity and problem-solving abilities helped him successfully steer strategic initiatives — but when management changed and he was no longer included in C-suite meetings, Rich’s intrinsic goal of developing new strategies and markets evaporated. Instead of continuing to work for an employer in development, Rich pivoted toward consulting and identifying potential companies that might become his first customers. By launching a firm targeted at the medical device industry, he was able to identify, propose and implement growth strategies to his own clients.

2. Follow your flow

Another fundamental strategy for identifying the right goal for you and your business is to reflect on specific experiences you’ve had when you were so absorbed by an activity that you lost all sense of time passing. In such situations, you felt energized, inspired and capable of accomplishing almost anything. Renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” to describe such states.

Activities that create flow are inherently rewarding and thus serve as great internal motivators.

Identifying the activities that captured your energy and attention in the past will enable you to get a clear picture of the tasks you’ll find engaging in your business. Revisiting these previous peak experiences will allow you to set company goals that align with your strengths, values, and passions.

3. Create a strategic system

To elevate the effectiveness of using your own experiences and insights for goal setting, it helps to develop a framework around your goals — one that designates specific actions to take en route to them. This can help you reach your desired end state while providing a focus for your motivational energy.

If you are planning to start your own business, for example, many interim steps have to occur before you reach your ultimate goal of the actual launch. Your strategic system might involve identifying your target customer, creating your branding, leveraging outreach strategies, and networking with thought leaders.

4. Spell it out

According to social psychologist Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, distractions play a significant role in why it’s hard to get things done. When you fail to pinpoint specifics of how you will reach a goal, you hamper its potential execution. Nearly 100 studies have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal — setting your “implementation intentions” through “if-then” planning — can double or even triple your chances for success.

If, for example, your goal is to write a business plan, but you dislike doing the research required to write this type of report, your if-then plan might look something like this: “I need to finish my business plan to show to investors next Friday. I will spend four hours working on it from 2:30 pm to 6:30 pm each day between now and then.” Halvorson noted in an article in Harvard Business Review that “If-then plans work because contingencies are built into our neurological wiring…When people decide when, where, and how they will fulfill their goals, they create a link in their brains between a certain situation or cue and the behavior that should follow.

Rather than wasting too much time chasing the wrong goals with ineffective strategies or risking not reaching your vision at all, it makes sense to instead take steps to increase the likelihood that you will succeed at what really matters to you and your business. When you leverage these four research-based approaches, you’ll greatly enhance your chances of goal attainment.

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